Predicting the Future: The Science of Psi, Part Two

Illustrated by Jody Hewgill for Smithsonian Magazine

Last week we began our discussion on the scientific (i.e., parapsychological) study of purportedly psychic phenomena. Today, we conclude our investigation with a look at precognitive dreams and the empirical quantification of presentiment.

There are several famous tales of dreams that seem to predict the future. One notable account comes from the acclaimed American author, Mark Twain. Twain claimed to have experienced a vivid dream detailing his brother’s death several weeks before his passing. Dr. Franklin Ruehl elaborates: “On one dark night in the late 1880s, at his sister’s home in St. Louis, Twain awoke in terror from a frightful, realistic nightmare. He had dreamed that Henry had died, and that his brother’s corpse was lying in an open metal coffin. On his chest was an elaborate bouquet of white flowers marked by a single red rose in the center. Twain, in his early 20s at the time, could not fall back asleep for several hours. Instead, he lay awake dwelling on his dream’s deadly implications…Shortly thereafter, as the Pennsylvania [boat upon which Henry worked] was steaming into Memphis harbor, four boilers violently exploded. Most of the crew members were critically wounded, including Henry. He died a few days later…Then, at the local funeral parlor, Twain saw all the victims in their coffins. One was more expensive than the others: it was metal and had been paid for by several local ladies who had adored the handsome Henry… As Twain gazed tearfully upon his beloved brother, an attractive young woman quietly walked up to place a spray of white flowers with a single red rose at its center on Henry’s chest.”

Some of you may be feeling skeptical about the accuracy of this tale – and indeed, Twain was a skilled storyteller. However, several studies seem to support his experience. One study, conducted by Dale E. Graff, sought to “determine if it was possible to experience precognitive dreams about photographs that would be published in future newspaper articles. Operational constraints were newspapers (USA Today and two local newspapers), specific pages and the future time of publication.” He compared sketches drawn by the participants on specific nights “to all possible photographs within the operational constraints.” His results were surprising: “This exploratory precognitive dream series yielded dream-photograph matches with a high degree of correlation, thereby providing strong evidence for precognition.”

Further research intimates that not only is it possible for dreams to be precognitive, they can also be telepathic. Notable studies were conducted “by the research group at the Maimonides hospital in New York… In these studies a ‘sender’ attempted to send images to a ‘receiver’ who slept in another room and whose sleep was recorded with standard EEG leads. When the sleeper entered REM he was awakened and reported whatever he was dreaming.” The results were statistically significant: more often than not, the receiver reported seeing images that corresponded to the “sent” messages. Replication of these findings has been inconsistent; however, as Dr. Patrick McNamara points out, “…It may be that you are much more likely to get significant hit rates if you use participants with high Psi abilities like the high stimulus seekers in Bem’s studies.”

Still more research has been done on presentiment, also known as predictive anticipatory activity (PAA). Julia A. Mossbridge and her peers conducted a meta-analysis of this kind of physiological psychic ability. She explains, “We use the more descriptive term PAA to indicate that this phenomenon is predictive of randomly selected future events, anticipates these events more often than chance, and is based on physiological activity in the autonomic and central nervous systems.” Mossbridge hypothesized that “the difference between physiology preceding emotional and neutral events is in the same direction as the difference after those same events; in other words, it tested the hypothesis that the pre- and post-event physiological differences have the same sign (positive or negative).” A thorough analysis of over forty studies “revealed a small but highly statistically significant effect size in support of the hypothesis.”

Though much more research must be conducted on these subjects, there is some evidence to support the notion that our dreams as well as our nervous systems may be able predict the future to some meaningful degree.

-Written by Betty Vine

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